Blasphemy Laws Violate Property Rights
What’s been lacking from the debate on the proposed Irish blasphemy law is any framing of the discussion in its proper context: property rights. Once we do this, the correct criticism of the law becomes clear.
We begin by noting that all communication has a physical form, a form which is always the property of some agent.
When I produce a blog article, I combine my time, labour, and the resources provided by our blog host to produce material which is then uploaded to a particular URL. Once there, potential readers can download copies to their own computers, copies which then become their own private property (albeit perhaps with copyright restrictions).
Books and magazine articles, and even verbal speech, are all subject to the same principle: that they are produced and published using private property and put in a physical form which others may then gain access to, frequently for a price. There is a transfer of property titles when one enters a bookshop and buys something to read, or the creation of property titles when one downloads a fresh copy of a website page to their computer.
Even verbal speech is always located in a particular place, in air space on land held as the property of some agent. It is produced using private property (one’s voice) and transferred to the private property of others (their ears) through a medium which is itself somebody’s private property (the landowner).
So how does blasphemy fit into this understanding? The simple truth is that there’s nothing very special about such material. Property can be combined to produce it and it can then be transferred to become the private property of others through voluntary agreement.
Anti-blasphemy legislation, then, is an assertion of control over any material which could be interpreted as blasphemous, and over the labour, materials and media which could be combined to produce and transmit it.
Defenders of the law claim that blasphemy is an “externality”, a harm imposed on third parties. But who exactly could these third parties be? If someone is offended by a book, magazine or blog article which they themselves voluntarily gained access to, then they are not a third party, but a direct participant in an exchange. While they may be grossly offended by the content of the communication, their property rights have in no way been violated merely on the basis of that fact. They could only claim such if those who provided the material to them had broken a prior agreement with respect to its content.
There are few conceivable ways in which blasphemy could ever be considered as an externality: externalities are only present when property rights have been poorly defined or are difficult or impossible to define, and it’s very easy and natural to assign property titles in communication materials – books, magazines, etc. One difficult situation arises when the blasphemous material is broadcast verbally in such a way that it invades the air space of non-consenting third party landowners. In that case, it falls only into the relatively mundane topic of noise pollution.
And that is the only genuine case that springs to mind. Any other description of blasphemy as an externality (especially when in printed form) amounts to little more than a claim by some parties to the property of others: an interference in the private arrangements of those who voluntarily produce and consume blasphemous material.
Now it might be said that some people are so grossly offended by blasphemy that its mere existence causes “harm” to them. While they may not be under any compulsion to read or view the material, they would nevertheless greatly prefer if nobody else read or viewed it either. And, furthermore: that coercively preventing others from doing so is the only means they can envisage of bringing that about.
But this is the problem that civilisation poses to us: to be peaceful and to respect the property of others. The “harm” suffered by those who would ban blasphemy is caused by their own intolerance, not that of the blasphemers.
Understanding the property rights framework in which speech is produced demonstrates that an anti-blasphemy law is simply illiberal: nothing more than the stamping out of diversity, the rigging of discourse, and the restriction by some on how others may choose to act and to interact with each other.